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How to Prevent Tooth Cavities

Updated on July 12, 2009

How Tooth Cavities are Formed

Tooth cavities and tooth decay both refer to the holes that form in your teeth caused by certain bacteria in your mouth called Streptococcus mutans and Lactobacilli.  The disease process by which tooth cavities are formed is called dental caries. 

Dental caries occurs when you eat food containing simple, fermentable sugars, such as glucose, fructose or sucrose.  The bacteria in the mouth decompose the sugars and produce a lactic acid by-product that demineralises (decalcifies or breaks down) tooth enamel and dentine.  If this acid attack is allowed to continue unchecked, it will eventually undermine tooth structure sufficiently for a hole to be formed.

Protecting Teeth from the Acid Attack

In the early stages of caries formation, a tooth can still be protected from cavitation (formation of cavities) through a remineralisation process. Remineralisation of tooth structure can be encouraged by the presence of saliva and fluoride in the mouth.

Saliva protects the teeth in two ways:

1. It contains minerals that help to remineralise teeth.

2. It also acts as a buffer to neutralise acids in the mouth produced by bacteria after a sugary meal.

Therefore, anything that increases the production of saliva in the mouth, such as chewing sugar-free gum, will assist to reverse the process of caries formation.

Fluoride also protects teeth in two ways:

1.      The presence of an optimum level of fluoride in the mouth encourages remineralisation of the teeth. 

2.      The remineralised tooth structure takes on fluoride ions into its structure to form a substance called fluoroapatite.  The new tooth structure is stronger and more resistant to future acid attacks.

Fluoride can be introduced to the mouth by rinsing with fluoridated mouth rinses and by brushing with fluoride toothpastes.

The Relationship between Sugar and Tooth Cavities

It is often recommended that in order to reduce the risk of tooth cavities, you should limit your intake of sugary food and drinks.  However, it is not simply the amount of sugar you consume that affects your risk of developing tooth cavities. 

In an infamous study called the Vipeholm Study, a very interesting relationship between the intake of sugary food and drinks was revealed.  The study divided the subjects into four groups:

1.      A control group that had a limited intake of sugar restricted to meal times only.

2.      An experimental group that was given a bag of toffees to eat at a specific time of the day only.

3.      An experimental group that was given a bag of toffees to eat as and when they desired throughout the day.

4.      An experimental group that was given sweetened drinks as part of their daily diet.

The study revealed that the group consuming the bag of toffees as and when they desired throughout the day presented with the highest incidence of tooth cavities, followed by the group that consumed the bag of toffees only once a day.  The control group had the least cavities, followed by the group that was given sweetened drinks as part of their daily diet.

The study concluded that it is not only the presence of sugar in our diets that affect our risk for developing tooth cavities but the type of sugar consumed and the frequency with which it is consumed.  Generally, the more often you consumed sugary food and drinks during the day, the higher your risk of developing tooth decay.  Secondly, sugary food that is sticky (like toffees) increase the risk of tooth decay more so than non-sticky sugary foods, such as sugary drinks.

Therefore, if you really cannot resist having something sweet in your diet, try to limit it to once a day and to eat it with a main meal.  If you must drink sweet drinks, using a straw which takes the liquid to the back of the throat can limit its contact with the teeth.  Rinsing out your mouth can also reduce sugars remaining in the mouth after a meal.

Preventing Tooth Cavities

The occurrence of tooth cavities can be prevented by ensuring that one follows a simple set of oral hygiene practices. The commonly recommended oral hygiene regimen is as follows:

1. Brush your teeth twice a day with fluoridated toothpaste and a soft bristled toothbrush.

2. Floss in between your teeth.

3. Use a fluoride mouth rinse.

4. Visit your dentist for a dental check up every six months.

Some individuals have molar and premolar teeth with deep grooves on the biting surface. It is easy for bacteria to penetrate these grooves and cause tooth decay. To protect these grooves from tooth decay, you can ask your dentist for "fissure sealants" which seal the grooves from bacteria.

What are Fissure Sealants?

Fissure Sealants are plastic coverings that seal the grooves on the biting surface of your molar and premolar teeth and protect them from bacteria.  It is a simple, non-invasive procedure that can be performed in one dental appointment.

Tooth decay is a common dental disease that is easily preventable.  For some individuals, simply maintaining the general recommended oral hygiene practices is sufficient.  However, for other individuals, further preventative measures may be necessary to provide added protection against tooth decay.


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